Thomas D’Arcy McGee on Literature as National Identity

The Dorchester Review will soon publish my piece on Thomas D’Arcy McGee and the Kingdom of Canada. In anticipation of that article, I would like to share with you the section that I had to cut early on in the drafting. But like the deleted scene of a film that went through post-production, it is complete with respect to the rest of the upcoming article; it should even mostly stand on its own, too.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee, to the extent that he endures in our national memory today at all, mostly features as the “Poet of Confederation” and for having earned the ignoble distinction of becoming the first of only three Canadian politicians ever to die by assassination. But we should also treat him as a serious political thinker and theoretician of federalism, constitutional monarchy, and parliamentary government.

I took this photo of the historical plaque at the foot of the Thomas D’Arcy McGee Building in Ottawa, which stands near the site of his assassination.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee underwent several tumultuous intellectual shifts during the 1840s and 1850s before finally settling on his final iteration from 1857 to 1868 – that for which he remains admired in Canada – of Burkean conservative and proponent of linguistic and religious minorities, separate schooling, Responsible Government, and constitutional monarchy. He first left Ireland for the United States at age 17 in 1842; he lived in Boston for the next three years and established himself as co-editor of the Boston Pilot, an Irish Catholic newspaper, where he burnished his credentials as a moderate Irish nationalist and American manifest destinarian. He returned to Ireland in 1845, shortly before the Great Famine ravaged the island and reduced its population through death and emigration by half, only to flee Ireland for the United States once more in order to evade an arrest warrant in 1848. Over the next nine years, he lived variously in New York City, Buffalo, and Boston; while he remained a faithful Roman Catholic throughout his life, he also shifted during these years from mild clerical skepticism to Ultra-Montanism.[1] But his prodigious output of newspaper columns, essays, historical treatises, and poetry remained constant over the course of his evolving politics.

We should regard Thomas D’Arcy McGee as the Poet of Confederation not merely because of his ballads but also for the peerless eloquence with which he expressed the political case for federalism, constitutional monarchy, parliamentary government, and liberty under law and linked them all to his views on literature, cultural identity, and nationality. A prolific writer, McGee wrote historical treatises, penned numerous essays and took part in the great political debates of the Province of Canada, and even composed poetry. His historical works focused on Ireland, Irish emigration to Canada and the United States, and sectarian conflict. His co-editor at the Boston Tribute, Patrick Donahue, with whom he had previously mused in favour of American Manifest Destiny, published A History of the Irish Settlers in North America, The Catholic History of North America, and A History of the Attempts to Establish the Protestant Reformation in Ireland and the Successful Resistance of that People, 1540-1830.[2] After emigrating to Montreal, McGee also wrote A Popular History of Ireland: From the Earliest Period to the Emancipation of the Catholics, a two-volume work, in 1863.[3] His political pamphlets include Notes on Federal Governments, Past and Present from 1865 and various transcribed speeches and addresses which he delivered on topics like “Canada’s Interest in the American Civil War,” “The Common Interests of British North America,” “Intercolonial Relations and the Intercolonial Railway,” “Constitutional Difficulties Between Upper and Lower Canada,” “Representation by Population,” and “Canadian Defences.”[4]   

McGee immediately began promoting a British North American union after settling in Montreal in 1857. He brought with him from the United States some of the animating ideas of the Transcendentalist movement and the Young Ireland Movement (arguably both transplanted forms of German idealism) and sought to cultivate a unique Canadian identity through arts and literature. McGee had, in fact, emphasised literature as nationality in the 1840s and even before the Famine advocated for Irish Home Rule under Canadian-style Responsible Government and the repeal of the Act of Union, 1801, which would have restored Ireland as a separate kingdom in a personal union or dual monarchy with Great Britain. He believed that the long-term viability of such political projects depended not merely upon arguments for economic advantage and material incentive but instead upon the non-material, a genuine patriotism and new nationality and that constitutional monarchy and Responsible Government could secure and sustain for posterity a second transcontinental federation in North America. And literature would go a long way toward cultivating that new nationality. McGee had emphasised literature as a pillar of nationality since the 1840s.

McGee founded The New Era shortly after emigrating in Montreal in 1857; while he only published it for one year, he used this platform to broadcast his political project of establishing a federation of British North America along with a “new nationality” to sustain it. He devoted the last eleven years of his life to that end. The name of the newspaper itself evokes McGee’s own transformation from radical revolutionary to conservative monarchist. On 3 June 1857, he wrote a short column on “A National Literature for Canada,” which served as a manifesto for cultivating a unique literary tradition in the northern half of North America.

Literature is the vital atmosphere of nationality. Without that all-pervading, indefinite, exquisite element, national life – public life – must perish and rot. No literature, no national life – this is an irreversible law. It needs no illustration to those who have turned their thoughts to the secret sources of political stability – who have sought in the far-away mountains of the moon, the origin of this Nile of intellectual fecundity, which has alternatively over-flowed and subsided on the soil of every great civilized kingdom. Yet to some, a rapid illustration of the truth may not be superfluous.[5]

Even in his first foray, McGee links the advocacy of a Canadian literature to political stability and emphasises that every great civilised kingdom – a monarchical polity – depended on a vibrant literary tradition.  He exhorts his new-found fellow-countrymen to take the responsibility for cultivating their own literature:

Let us construct a national literature for Canada, neither British nor French nor Yankeeish, but the offspring and heir of the soul, borrowing lessons from all lands, but asserting its own title throughout all!

While McGee had moved on from his old ideology when left the United States for Canada, he did not entirely abandon the methods and lessons that he had learned in Boston, Buffalo, and New York; he merely shifted their ends away from American Manifest Destiny under republican political institutions in favour of a counter-revolutionary monarchism and self-government within the British Empire. This he sought both for Canada and for Ireland. McGee drew upon the tenets of Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who also deliberately set out to create an American literature separate and distinct from its English antecedents and match the political and economic independence of the United States of America with a corresponding independence of culture and thought.[6] As Emerson famously proclaimed in his address “The American Scholar” in 1837:

“Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. […] Poetry will revive and lead in a new age.”[7]

Whether or not McGee ever met Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, or others while he resided in Boston, he certainly took the idea of cultural and literary independence to heart and imported it with him to Montreal. In his Notes on Federal Governments, Past and Present, McGee also praised the United States of America where “a new literature, too, had begun to manifest itself – enriching and honoring the English language.”[8] He wanted the Kingdom of Canada to achieve the same independence of mind.

McGee lent his considerable literary talent to this patriotic endeavour and somewhat presumptuously (as always) and undauntedly offered his Canadian Ballads and Occasional Verses in 1858, only one year after settling in Montreal, to cultivate a unique Canadian literature and poetry for a new British North American nationality, explaining in the preface:

The Author of the Ballads contained in this little volume presents them to the younger generation of Canadians, as an attempt to show, most inadequately as he feels, that by those who are blessed with the divine gift of poetry, many worthy themes may be found, without quitting their own country.

[W]e shall one day be a great northern nation, and develope [sic] within ourselves that best fruit of nationality, a new and lasting literature. […] of all the forms of patriotism, a wise, public-spirited patriotism in literature, is not the least admirable. It is, indeed, glorious to die in battle in defence of our homes or altars; but not less glorious is it to live to celebrate the virtues of our own heroic countrymen, to adorn the history, or to preserve the traditions of our country.[9]

He concluded: “Simply as an offering of first-fruits, I present this little volume to the young people of Canada.”[10] Perhaps if the Fenian assassin’s bullet had not felled him at the age of 42, these verses would have become McGee’s Leaves of Grass, revised and expanded throughout his literary career.

On 5 November 1867, one day before the 1st session of the 1st Parliament of the Dominion of Canada convened, MP-elect Thomas D’Arcy McGee contributed a column to the Montreal Gazette entitled “The Mental Outfit of the New Dominion” in which he contemplated “with what intellectual forces and appliances, with what quantity and kind of common stock, we are about to set up for ourselves, a distinct national existence in North America.”[11] McGee added, echoing Emerson and the Young Irelander Movement once more: “Regarding the New Dominion as in incipient new Nation, it seems to me, that our mental self-reliance is an essential condition of our political independence.” A healthy and independent national discourse depended first and foremost on newspapers and free press as forums of debate. On this score, Canada had already achieved some measure of success. But McGee believed that British North Americans needed to cultivate their own novelists and poets, encourage public libraries, and, most pressingly of all, establish proper universities which teach a comprehensive set of subject-matter in medicine, law, divinity, the humanities, the arts, and natural science. He noted that some universities housed limited libraries and praised the Parliamentary Library, headed by Alpheus Todd, but lamented: “Of public libraries, I grieve to say that we have no far as I know, single one, in the whole Dominion.”[12] In McGee’s estimation, Canadians needed to cultivate the arts, libraries, and great universities because, as he further lamented, “We have not produced in our Colonial Era any thinker of the reputation of Jonathan Edwards or Benjamin Franklin.”[13]

McGee intrinsically understood the appeal of the Transcendentalists and drew upon their lessons once more, even mentioning a few by name.

Forty years ago, a British Quarterly Review asked, “Who reads an American book?” Irving had answered that long ago; but Cooper, Longfellow, Emerson, Prescott, Hawthorne, and many another, have answered that taunt triumphantly since. These Americans might, in turn, taunt us to-day with, “Who reads a Canadian book?” I should answer frankly, very few, for Canadian books are exceedingly scare.[14]

McGee also intrinsically understood that the American Civil War, especially in its second half from 1863 to 1865 when Abraham Lincoln consecrated the conflict to abolishing slavery, had accelerated these Antebellum forces into a powerful literary culture and new-found patriotic mission in the United States:

Within the last few years, especially since the era of the civil war, there has been a craving desire to assert the mental independence of America as against England; to infuse an American philosophy of life, and philosophy of government, into every American writing and work of art.[15]

It mattered not that the British Empire had outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery itself in 1833 through a peaceable act of parliament after years of popular agitation and parliamentary debate — fully thirty years before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation during the bloody carnage of the Civil War, and thirty-two years before the 13th Amendment absolutely abolished slavery in the United States. The Union had fought against the Confederate States of America, a secessionist polity the constitution of which, as McGee noted deliberately “provides for a servile, or enslaved class, as a permanent basis for power.” Even in McGee’s estimation, the Confederacy had thus put itself “boldly, defiantly at war, with all the received opinion of Christendom.”[16]  Nothing galvanises men into action and stirs the patriotic heart like a war. Union victory secured Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom,” and, in turn, emboldened American literature and poetry as an affirmation of what McGee called “mental independence.” McGee also understood the cultural hegemony of the United States and that nothing happens until it happens in the United States, even if it does not happen first in the United States. (In this respect, I feel a personal kinship with him, because, like him, I also lived in the United States in my teens, felt the inexorable gravitational pull toward, and descent into, Americanism, and experimented with republicanism in my youth before embracing constitutional monarchy and Responsible Government as bulwarks of ordered liberty).

In “The Mental Outfit of the New Dominion,” McGee couched one parting shot at the Transcendentalists and their primary organ, The Atlantic Monthly, warning Canadians that they must contain and counter-act both the territorial expansion and manifest destiny of the United States across North America as well as their corresponding cultural influence and power to captivate and colonise the British North American mind. If the Americans created a literature to celebrate universal democracy and presidential-congressional form of popular sovereignty, then Canadians would have to devote their national literature and cultural independence to celebrating ordered liberty under constitutional monarchy and Responsible Government.

If we are to succeed with our new Dominion, it can never be by accepting a ready-made easy literature, which assumes Bostonian culture to be the worship of the future, and the American democratic system to be the manifestly destined form of government for all the civilized world, new as well as old.

In this, McGee proved prescient. As Spanish political scientist Juan Linz noted in 1990, “the only presidential democracy with a long history of continuity is the United States”; the American presidential-congressional system of government and its stark division of powers have proven disastrous and unstable throughout Latin America.[17] McGee called upon “the educated young men of Canada” to take this torch and “not to shrink from confronting the great problems presented by America to the world, whether in morals or in government” and to raise this new Dominion to an equal and opposing standard to the United States.[18]  Historian Jason King concludes:

The legacy of Thomas D’Arcy McGee derives from his vigorous pursuit of this quest to both its literary and political terminus: his poetic and his political endeavors to create a Canadian self-image in relation to the ‘peaceable kingdom’ ideal that would gradually evolve into one of Canada’s most enduring national myths.[19]

While McGee would be assassinated within a year, his literary legacy endured and went on to inspire subsequent generations of Canadian writers throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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[1] David A. Wilson, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Volume 1: Passion, Reason, and Politics, 1825-1857  (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008).

[2] Thomas D’Arcy McGee, A History of the Irish Settlers in North America (Boston: Patrick Donahue, 1852); Thomas D’Arcy McGee, A History of the Attempts to Establish the Protestant Reformation in Ireland and the Successful Resistance of that People, 1540-1830 (Boston: Patrick Donahue, 1853); Thomas D’Arcy McGee, The Catholic History of North America (Boston: Patrick Donahue, 1855).

[3] Thomas D’Arcy McGee, A Popular History of Ireland: From the Earliest Period to the Emancipation of the Catholics, Volumes 1 & 2 (New York: D.&J. Sadler and Co., 1863).

[4] Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Notes on Federal Governments, Past and Present (Montreal: Dawson Brothers, 1865); Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Speeches and Addresses Chiefly on the Subject of British American Union (London: Chapman and Hall, 1865).

[5] Thomas D’Arcy McGee, “A National Literature for Canada,” New Era, vol. 1, no. 11, 3 June 1857, page 2.

[6] Annika Neklason, “Ralph Waldo Emerson’s American Idea,” The Atlantic Monthly, 28 November 2019.

[7] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” An Oration Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Cambridge, 31 August 1837.

[8] Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Notes on Federal Governments, Past and Present (Montreal: Dawson Brothers, 1865), 40.

[9] Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Canadian Ballads and Occasional Verses (Montreal: John Lovell, 1858), vii.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Thomas D’Arcy McGee, “The Mental Outfit of the New Dominion,” Montreal Gazette, 5 November 1867, page. 1.

[12] Ibid., 5.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 6.

[15] Ibid.

[16] McGee, Notes on Federal Governments, Past and Present, 43.

[17] Juan Linz, “The Perils of Presidentialism,” Journal of Democracy vol. 1, no. 1 (Winter 1990): 51-52.

[18] McGee, “The Mental Outfit of the New Dominion,” 7.

[19] Jason King, “Modern Irish-Canadian Literature: Defining the ‘Peaceable Kingdom,’” Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 31, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 67.


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Articles, History of British North America. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Thomas D’Arcy McGee on Literature as National Identity

  1. Rand Dyck says:

    Where are such deep thinkers, writers, and literature lovers in politics NOW??? WOW!


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